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Monday, Oct 16, 2017
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Hurricane Maria approaching Turks and Caicos Islands

Hurricane Maria strengthened slightly Thursday as its large eye approached the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas.

At 11 p.m., the Category 3 storm had maximum sustained winds of 125 mph. The eye was centered about 65 miles east-southeast of Grand Turk Island, moving northwest at 8 mph. A turn toward the north-northwest is forecast early today, with that motion continuing through Saturday.

Hurricane conditions are expected to begin in the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas late Thursday or early today. Tropical storm conditions are possible in the central Bahamas beginning late today.

A day after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, flooding towns, crushing homes and killing at least two people, millions of people on the island faced the dispiriting prospect of weeks and perhaps months without electricity.

The storm knocked out the entire grid across the U.S. territory of 3.4 million, leaving many without power to light their homes, cook, pump water or run fans, air conditioners or refrigerators.

"You cannot live here without power," said Hector Llanos, a 78-year-old retired New York police officer who planned to leave Saturday for the U.S. mainland to live there temporarily.

Like many Puerto Ricans, Llanos does not have a generator or gas stove. "The only thing I have is a flashlight," he said, shaking his head. "This is never going to return to normal."

Maria's death toll across the Caribbean, meanwhile, climbed to at least 19, nearly all of them on the hard-hit island of Dominica. In Puerto Rico, the government said at least two were killed, but media on the island were reporting additional deaths and the actual toll appeared unlikely to be known for days.

RELATED: 'We will find our island destroyed': Hurricane demolishes Puerto Rico

The remnants of the storm continued to dump rain on the island Thursday — up to 3 feet in some areas.

Flash flood warnings persisted, according to the National Hurricane Center, with "catastrophic" flooding "especially in areas of mountainous terrain."

As of Thursday evening, Maria was moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic with winds of 125 mph. The storm was expected to approach the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas by early today.

From there, it is expected to veer into the open Atlantic, no threat to the U.S. mainland.

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In Puerto Rico, the grid was in sorry shape long before Maria — and Hurricane Irma two weeks ago — struck.

The territory's $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. It abandoned most maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.

"We knew this was going to happen given the vulnerable infrastructure," Gov. Ricardo Rossello said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would open an air bridge from the mainland today, with three to four military planes flying to the island every day carrying water, food, generators and temporary shelters.

"There's a humanitarian emergency here in Puerto Rico," Rossello said. "This is an event without precedent."

He said his administration was trying to open ports soon to receive shipments of food, water, generators, cots and more.

The government has hired 56 small contractors to clear trees and put up new power lines and poles and will be sending tanker trucks to supply neighborhoods as they run out of water. The entire island has been declared a federal disaster zone.

Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association, a utility industry group that is sending repair crews into the Caribbean, refused to speculate on how long it would take to restore power in Puerto Rico.

"Let's see what the facts tell us by the end of the weekend," he said. But he acknowledged: "This is going to be a tall lift."

HURRICANE IRMA: Complete coverage and what you need to know

The White House said late Thursday that President Donald Trump has spoken with the governors of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Trump said earlier Thursday that Puerto Rico was "absolutely obliterated" and the Virgin Islands were "flattened" by recent hurricanes Irma and Maria. He said he would visit Puerto Rico, but gave no details on the timing of the trip.

Cellphone and internet service collapsed in much of Puerto Rico. The only radio station that remained on the air during the hurricane — WAPA 680 AM — was relaying messages to help connect friends and families.

Jaime Rullan, a sports commentator, has a gas stove at home but tried not to think about the lack of air conditioning on an island where the heat index has surpassed 100 degrees in recent days.

"We're used to the lights going out because of storms here in Puerto Rico, but this time, we're worried," he said. "We should prepare ourselves mentally to be at least a month without power."

Deysi Rodriguez, a 46-year-old caretaker for elderly people, does not have a gas stove. And unlike others who have been lining up at the few fast-food restaurants that have reopened, Rodriguez is a diabetic and has to be more careful about what she eats.

Rodriguez said she might temporarily move to New Jersey if the situation gets worse.

LIVE RADAR: Interactive storm track, hourly outlooks, 10-day forecasts and weather alerts

In an upscale neighborhood in San Juan, 69-year-old retiree Annie Mattei's condominium has a generator. But she said maintenance will shut it off between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to save fuel.

"This has been devastating," she said as her eyes welled with tears.

HURRICANE GUIDE: Emergency information, tracking map and storm resources

Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, causing no deaths or widespread damage on the island but leaving more than 1 million people without electricity. More than 70,000 still had no power as Maria approached.

The storm's center passed near or over St. Croix overnight Tuesday, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to warn people to sleep in their street clothes and shoes just in case. St. Croix was largely spared by Irma.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries on St. Croix, but it was still too dangerous Wednesday to venture out and conduct a thorough check, said Nykole Tyson, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Virgin Islands Emergency Operations Center.

On the island of Dominica, which got slammed late Monday, Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister, reported at least seven deaths and a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings." He said the country was "in a daze," with no electricity and little to no communications.

Dominica's airport and seaports remained closed, and authorities used helicopters to carry emergency food, water and shelter materials to the island, said Ronald Jackson, head of the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency.

     
       
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